Saturday, October 20, 2012

30 Days of Genre - Who Is Your Favorite Protagonist in a Genre Novel?

Jack of Shadows created by Roger Zelazny

I love Roger Zelazny's work, especially the way he so often weaves mythology together with science fiction in books like . . . And Call Me Conrad, Lords of Light, and Creatures of Light and Darkness. Even the Nine Princes in Amber series, which is more fantasy oriented than many of Zelazny's books, merges science fiction into its fantasy sensibilities.

But my favorite character of Zelazny's, and my favorite protagonist in a genre novel, is the morally ambiguous Jack of Shadows, also known as Shadowjack, from the novel of the same name. Jack lives on an Earth that does not rotate, with one side bathed in continuous daylight, and the other shrouded in perpetual night. On the light side, technology reigns supreme, while in the darkness, magic prevails. Most of the great powers on the dark side are tied to a location, deriving their strength from the place they inhabit. Jack does not. Jack derives his power from shadow. Not darkness, shadow. As a result, though most of the potent wielders of arcane might are sedentary, Jack is a wanderer. But Jack is also despised, and his only friend is Morningstar, a great being cursed to be fused into a mountain on the edge of dawn, only to be released if the sun that will never rise rises over the horizon.

In Jack's world death is not always permanent, and most people will come back a couple of times after they die, always regenerating on the East Pole, and this is where the story begins, with Jack returning to life. He evades the ruler of the East Pole, who extracts service out of those unfortunate enough to be caught in his realm outside of their own places of power, and avoids the machinations of his enemies. But Jack is a hunted man, and he decides to seek out the mystical Kolwynia, the "Key That Was Lost", which has been the subject of many quests after its location. And Jack's solution is why I love him as a protagonist because he looks where no one else has thought to: the light side of the planet. Jack finds the key, and uses its power to overthrow the established order on the dark side, placing himself as ruler of the eternal night. But he discovers that he alone cannot do what is necessary to keep the cold of darkness from destroying the shadowy nations he rules, and he has offended everyone so much that no one will help him.

Taking Morningstar's advice, Jack goes deep under the surface to restart the machine that turns the world, setting the planet rotating. One interesting side note here is that it is revealed that the beliefs of the side that one is on determine reality. On the light side, where science rules the world, the core of the Earth is a molten ball of superheated iron. On the dark side, where magic dominates, the core of the world is occupied by a giant clockwork machine that needs to be restarted. After restarting the machine, the world begins to turn, and Jack struggles to escape from the underworld, but falls. Morningstar, having been freed, flies to save him, and the book ends with Morningstar's outstretched hand approaching as Jack wonders whether it will reach him in time.

Jack is a protagonist, although one might hesitate to call him a hero. He does overthrow the unjust regime of the dark side, but he replaces it with a dictatorship. He restarts the world, but in doing so he dooms the existence of magic. But he is the fly in the ointment that prevents stagnation. Through the novel he acts, and acts in ways that others not only do not expect, but would not have even considered. He is the voice of rebellion, the force of change, and the agent of chaos that alters a situation that had become ossified and moribund. And that, along with the exotic world he inhabits, is why he is my favorite protagonist.

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